French Women Don’t Get Fat

No, They’re Addicted, Anorexic and Anxious

Some European and US women are convinced that their French counterparts are naturally slimmer than they are. The French put it down to their “appreciation of food”. But from other perspectives, that explanation is very thin indeed.

It is unusual for a French attribute to induce a feeling of inadequacy in other nations. What causes women the world over to get their Bridget Jones-style big pants in a twist on the way to their compensatory barrel of fudge is that, well, “French Women Don’t Get Fat”.

This is accepted as holy writ by even the hard-boiled harpies editing magazines and presenting lifestyle programmes who gush about “the French Paradox” (Florency Fabricant, cookery expert, New York Times) and marvel how “French women don't get fat, but they do eat bread and pastry, drink wine, and regularly enjoy three-course meals.” (Oprah Winfrey). Apparently, “the ability to eat good food, drink fine wine and remain slim” is all “a matter of attitude, with a smidgeon of wisdom and a pinch of common sense thrown in” (Jana Kraus, Top 100 Reviewer, 

And it’s all true, isn’t it? Visions appear of pixy Audrey Tautou buzzing about a picture-book Paris on a moped, just as light as a puff of Gauloise. Or of Sophie Marceau in “The World Is Not Enough”, so slinky, so svelte, so French, right up until the moment Bond has to blow her head off. Or of Catherine Deneuve, still slim and gorgeous even though she’s about 97. Now why can’t you be more like them, fat-arse?

If you buy that rubbish, then you’ll also want to buy French Women Don't Get Fat (2004) by Mireille Guiliano or Chic and Slim: How Those French Women Eat all that Rich Food and Still Stay Slim (2004) by Anne Barone. Both books surrender to the idea that the French women are always thin because they are somehow just better than anyone else.

"'Forget diets. They are no fun and don't work”, says Barone. “What I learned from French women is that ultimately staying slim is not about counting calories or fat grams. It is not about exercise exhaustion. It is really about personal style.”

What gives these claims a spurious believability is the widely circulated statistic that while a hefty 22% of Americans are obese, only 11.3% of the French weigh in at the same level (these figures, quoted by Mireille Guiliano, come from the French health authorities). According to Guiliano, this is all because the French appreciate food more. 

They have elaborate food rituals. They go to the market several times a week and eat only what is in season. Unlike Americans, who buy processed, flavourless food and therefore need to eat a lot of it to feel gratified, the French, by eating better-tasting food and savouring it more consciously, "fool themselves" into being satisfied with less. That is, French women do, since, in Guiliano's book, it is specifically the women who must master "the useful art of self-deception... mentally balancing the pleasures of food against the competing desires to fit into the latest fashions and to be attractive to French men”, who she says like their wives to be "very elegant, very thin."

But statistics work both ways. There other facts and figures that suggest French women don’t get Fat but...

1. ... French Women Will Do Soon

For every thin, anglepoise Frenchwoman along the lines of Charlotte Rampling, there’s another like Brigitte Bardot that seems to be all carpet-skimming parabolas now. True, only 11.3% of the French are clinically obese but in 1990 the figure was only 6% (if the rate of obesity increases at the same rate, the French will overtake the US in 2020). Other studies indicate that French women have gained about 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) since 1970, men twice as much. Childhood obesity in France now runs at around 16-19% and, to counteract this trend, the French government has just banned 8000 soft drink vending machines in its schools. Ironically, obesity is in a way a measure of France’s success since it implies that more of the population now have easier access to the cheap, plentiful foods that Americans had thirty years ago (A more positive side-effect is that while French people may be growing wider they are also growing taller, about three centimetres since the 1970s.)

2. ... French Women Are Doped Up

One reason that French women may eat less than their counterparts in other countries is that they prefer to shovel pills down their throats than calories, including vast quantities of tranquillisers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants, all of which are notorious appetite suppressants. A 2003 survey by the Observatoire français des drogues et des toxicomanies (French Observatory of Drugs and Addictions) found that almost one in five of French adults including a quarter of all women – take mood- altering medicines. Almost one in ten women said they had taken sleeping pills or tranquillisers in the previous week. On average, a French person buys more than 40 boxes of medicines from chemists every year, a total of 2.6 billion pills and potions, according to government figures – more medicine per head than any other country in Europe. While an American woman might hunker down with a carton of Ben & Jerry’s to cure their blues, her French equivalent deals with their own body shape anxiety with a fistful of pills.

3. ... French Women Are Ill

According to nutrition journalist Kate Taylor of the New Yorker magazine, somewhere between 0.5% and 3.7% of American women suffer some kind of eating disorder in their lifetimes. Among young French women, an estimated 1-3% are anorexic; 5% are bulimic, and 11% have compulsive eating behaviours. French women may be slimmer than those in the US but, according to such statistics, more of them are unhappier about their bodily health and many of them are just plain unhealthier.

4. ... French Women Are More Likely to Die Of Lung Cancer

Cigarettes are a notorious appetite-suppressant. According to major surveys from both nations, the percentage of French women who smoke is five points higher than the percentage of American women. More significantly, in America, where cigarettes now have a loser image, only 10% of those with college and graduate degrees smoke (compared to about 40% of high-school dropouts). But in France, nearly 33% of upper-income earners smoke. These categories are important since they are the ones that worry most about their bodily appearance. It seems that, in France, they have a lot to be worried about. The French national public health body, the Institut de Vielle Sanitaire (INVS) now estimates that 12,000 French women will die from lung cancer each year from 2015, six times as many as in 1980. "It's hard to get across the danger”, says Sylviane Ratte, of the French National Anti-Cancer League, “because for decades cigarettes have been associated with images of beautiful, thin women”.

5. … But Only Because Otherwise Frenchmen Will Cheat On Them

In the late 1990s, 67% of French divorce actions were for fault (including adultery). 95% were brought by French women against cheating husbands. “In a recent review of Guiliano's book, Vogue magazine contributor Julia Reed touched again and again on the fact that French women keep their bodies trim for their husbands. Hmmmm. Here's another thing I know about French women from those of my acquaintance: their lives revolve around their husbands... Perhaps – just perhaps – French women don't get fat because they have a great deal invested in remaining married and pleasing a man in this way”. Bethanne Patrick, Book Maven, Editor at AOL Books.


Out of Shape: Jan. 7 2005 was National Weighing Day for the country's children, a strange ritual in France in which army of hundreds of state-employed pediatricians fan out to more than 80 cities to weigh, measure, and interrogate children. What they found was not encouraging to style-conscious France. The French are getting fatter. While adult obesity is rising about 6 percent annually, among children the national rate of growth is 17 percent. An estimated 55,000 people in France already die of obesity-related illnesses every year. At the current rate, the French could be – quelle horreur – as fat as Americans by 2020. 


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